The Not-So-Humble Vegetable

Now that the Northern Hemisphere is entering into Autumn, it’s that time of year when food is particularly on our minds.  Neighbors who cannot possibly eat all of the tomatoes and peppers they’ve grown are desperately looking to hand off their excess crops, rather than let them go to waste.  Fruits like peaches need preserving and canning, while apple picking season began just yesterday in many counties around DC.

The bounty of this time of year has inspired Western artists for millennia.  The cornucopias of the gods, tied to various ancient myths, are to be found in many examples of Ancient Greek and Roman statuary. Fruits and vegetables figure prominently in the work of Old Master painters such as Carlo Crivelli and the strange portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  In the 17th century, the Dutch and Spanish artists of the Golden Age often produced still life paintings featuring beautifully rendered produce.

Even alongside all of these examples however, it is hard to imagine topping the work of artist Patrick Laroche.  As a classically-trained sculptor, M. Laroche produces many things, from original pieces or restorations for the French national museums and palaces, to enlargements and reductions of existing sculptures, to exploring his own ideas in his personal work, which has a sensuous, Brancusi-like feel to it.  However the reason you need to know him in the context of this post is his current fascination, which lies in creating giant, colorful sculptures of vegetables, some of which have now been installed on exhibit at the Sofitel St. James in London.

Being somewhat of a magpie by nature, I was immediately drawn to the polished gleam of these works.  They are cast in bronze, stainless steel, or resin, and then coated in a high-gloss finish, giving them a colored shine, sometimes reflecting the vegetable’s actual color, sometimes not.  This makes the pieces stand out even more than they already would, just based on their gigantic size alone.

While historically, they are the sort of object that one could imagine a Renaissance prince commissioning for festivities surrounding a wedding or coronation, at the same time they are something a child with a great imagination would create, if he only knew how.  I think this childlike joy in creating the fantastic, in particular, is what makes them so charming: it prevents the pieces from becoming too totemic.  Moreover, M. Laroche’s motivation is celebration, as he told The Daily Telegraph, because he is passionate about gastronomy.  This seems a great way to celebrate the French national love of good food.

Even those of us who do not have the good fortune to be able to eat French food all the time can still admire, even smile or laugh, at work like this.  We can realize that we are very lucky indeed, in the Western world, to have so much good food to choose from in this season of plenty, particularly when so many around the world do not enjoy that luxury.  And while the realization of that fact should not put us off jarring our homemade marinara sauce or savoring the crispness of this year’s pears, perhaps it will also put us in mind of the fact that in sharing that bounty, we can truly demonstrate our gratitude for it.  M. Laroche’s sculptures are a wonderful reminder of how truly fortunate we are.

Patrick LaRoche

Sculptor Patrick Laroche in his Paris studio

 

 

 

Rose’s Turn: The Power of Painting with Pink

Ah, the time-honored summer art exhibition: when art galleries and dealers in big cities try to keep themselves from falling asleep out of boredom, waiting for customers to drop by.  The reader may not be aware, but from a business perspective, the selling of art is often as seasonal as is the selling of other commodities, from bikinis to snowplows. Just as art dealers in vacation areas tend to languish during the period between the end and the start of their area’s high season, so too galleries in urban areas often suffer from the doldrums during the summer vacations of their regular clientele.

To counteract this, a summer exhibition is a great way to generate some interest in what might otherwise be a period of lethargy.  The Royal Academy in London, for example, started hosting its annual Summer Exhibition way back in 1769, which over the centuries has proven to be a hugely profitable venture not only for the Royal Academy, but for the artists exhibited there and the galleries nearby.  The Academy gets a percentage of the proceeds of any of the works sold at the show, and the London art dealers rather than packing up and fleeing to the Rivera in search of their clients, will typically host their own, brief shows around the same time, so that potential collectors can drop by and see their works, as well.

Such is the case, I imagine, with the brief run of “Everything’s Rosy” at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown, which opened this past Friday.  The exhibition features a selection of works by a number of artists, all working in very different styles and with no thematic program, yet all are connected by their use of the color rose – or pink, depending on how you look at it, which of course for my Catholic readers brings back the old canard about the color of the priestly vestments for Gaudete and Laetare Sunday.  Appropriately enough, the opening reception for the show was accompanied by cocktails made with strawberries, rose sparkling wine, and Saint Germain.  My charming companion and I noted the refreshing recipe for future use, as we looked at the many types of painting on display, and chatted with one of the (always very gracious) gallery staff.

Pink is a color which today we often associate with the feminine – blue for boys, pink for girls – even though for centuries, that formula was reversed.  In an article about child-rearing in the venerable “Ladies’ Home Journal” published in June 1918, we read that when choosing a color for a baby’s clothing, outside of easy-to-bleach white, “the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”  One may also note that in traditional Catholic images of the Madonna and Child, the Virgin Mary is almost always depicted wearing blue, and there are many examples of the Christ Child wearing pink.

It is the boldness of pink as a color, much like the use of red, which tends to attract the eye; such a powerful shade can often completely dominate an image, unless the artist is careful.  What is appealing about the Susan Calloway show is how the selection of works speaks to a variety of tastes, but nothing hits you over the head with “PINK”, like walking into a child’s bedroom.  Yes, there are a few very charming, dare one say “pretty” images, but there are also some bold, textural pieces as well, which use pink in different ways.

Take for example an arresting painting by David Ivan Clark titled “Untitled (Still #69)”, a very horizontal work which features a gradation of color from pale gray to puce to black.  There is nothing “Hello Kitty” about this picture, and despite its substantial horizontality, it is a decidedly masculine-feeling piece.  Another work in the show, “Departures” by Janet Fry Rogers, features gleaming squares of silver leaf atop an underpainting of a deep, hot pink, reminding the viewer of the techniques employed in Medieval and Early Renaissance panel painting.  If, like this scrivener, you have certain magpie tendencies, you cannot help but be enthralled by the piece, so arresting is the juxtaposition of the bright undertone with the burnished, gleaming surface.

Arguably the star of the show is “Magnolia Swimwater” by Allison Hall Copley, a very large work on canvas which greets you as you enter the gallery.  Interestingly enough, the piece is framed, rather than stretched, leaving the unfinished edges of the piece exposed to look almost like rag paper.  The composition is a huge swirl of colors, a shower of bright pinks, oranges and blues against the plain white canvas.  Copley gives a wonderful sense of movement and flight to the painting, like a host of flower petals being caught up in a whirlwind and falling to earth again.

Although these three highlighted works are examples of different types of abstraction, those with an aversion to the non-representational need not fear. “Everything’s Rosy” additional features a number of charming, representational pieces, from artists such as the extremely talented landscape artist Ed Cooper, among others.  This is truly one of those bright and cheerful shows which has something for everyone, not only asking the visitor to consider pink in different ways, but also proving to be quite refreshing during yet another oppressively Washingtonian July.

“Everything’s Rosy” at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown runs from July 11th to July 22nd.

The wonderfully-textured "Departures" by Janet Fry Rogers,  looking great against the textured white brick walls at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown

The wonderfully textured “Departures” by Janet Fry Rogers,
looking great against the textured white brick walls at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown

 

Darkness and Light in the Art Market

For all of its flash and press, I’ve always found the Contemporary Art world to be rather a dark, inscrutable place. The art market is made up of many component strands, of which Contemporary Art is easily the brashest component.  Modern and Impressionist Art is still doing quite well of course, as last night’s sale in London of a Monet from his water lily series for $54 million shows.  It’s hard to imagine that 50 years from now, our grandchildren will look at this Monet alongside a work by someone like contemporary British artist Tracy Emin, and see them as being of equal artistic value.  Yet the art market itself is significantly changing, and this is both a problem and an opportunity.

It’s not hard to understand why, if you’re interested in making a lucrative career for yourself in the art business, that Contemporary Art is increasingly viewed as the place to be.  Between July 2012 and July 2013, worldwide sales of Contemporary Art hit one billion pounds for the first time.  It’s also the place to be if you just so happen to be a speculative investor.

At the top end of the market, Contemporary Art regularly commands very high prices, so that only the extremely rich can afford the buy-in for what in many cases is more about gambling than collecting.  True, some of those paying tens of millions of dollars for something which the average person looks at and scratches his head, rather than admires, may actually find meaning in what they are buying, even where beauty itself is noticeably absent.  However more often than not, such collectors are primarily interested in seeing art as a way to move money around more easily, and those who help them complete these transactions understand and facilitate this.

We need to remember of course that the art market is first and foremost a business environment, not a charitable institution.  If someone chooses to pay an astronomical sum for a work by contemporary sculptor Anish Kapoor, the creator of the broken-rollercoaster-enveloping-the-Seattle-Space-Needle sculpture known as “Orbit” for the 2012 London Olympic Park, the market is more than happy to oblige.  It is not the market’s job to point out that a fool and his money are soon parted.

The tough aspect of this, for those interested in the art world, is in separating speculation from appreciation.  A recent article in The New York Times probes this point, noting the huge chasm which currently exists in the area of Contemporary Art.  As a British art investment expert points out in the piece, the fixation on sales figures helps perpetuate the perception that art collecting is supposed to be about accumulating profit over the pursuit of knowledge and the appreciation of the beautiful. “Rich collectors compete in auctions to prove how much money they have. The rest of us should just have a discussion about the art we like.”

Fortunately, fans of all things old increasingly find themselves members of more intimate clubs.  In the field of Decorative Arts, for example, collectors and aficionados are becoming not only better-educated about the things they love, but they are being drawn more closely together because there are fewer of them.  As more and more media attention is siphoned off by the Contemporary Art trade, serious collectors interested in beautiful things find themselves freer to go about doing what they love.  Recently an article in The Art Newspaper covering the Art Antiques Fair in London hit the nail on the head when it comes to understanding this change, noting that “anything but contemporary art is being squeezed more and more because of the greed-inspiring sums of money fetched by the contemporary,” noting that attending events like the Art Antiques Fair is a pleasure because one is attending “an event that is genuinely to do with collecting rather than interior decorating or investing.”

What’s interesting to observe about this phenomenon is that it is bringing back collecting to where it began, in a sort of wheat from the chaff moment.  Chinese scholars, Roman senators, and Medieval princes were not interested in having unique works of art and art objects to hand because they intended to sell them on at a profit later, like flipping a house in a gentrifying neighborhood and then moving along.  Rather, they collected things to hold on to them forever, because they meant something more than the price tag which the objects bore.  Today, even as those interested in art as profitable investment are now going in one direction, those interested in art as a physical embodiment of intangible goods such as transcendent beauty, human ingenuity, and so on, are returning to their roots.

For the vast majority of us, the first and best rule of both studying and collecting art, has always been to focus on the things you love.  Learn as much about them as you can, so that whether it’s pre-Revolutionary Sèvres porcelain or early 20th century watercolors of the Scottish Highlands, you will not only enjoy them more, but you will benefit from meeting and forming friendships with others who enjoy them as well, educating one another about the finer points of technique, style, history, and so on.  Leave the business of art business to those primarily interested in playing speculative games in the dark, rather than in illuminating our culture.

"Water Lilies" (1906) by Claude Monet  Sold at Sotheby's London for $54 million last evening

“Water Lilies” (1906) by Claude Monet
Sold at Sotheby’s London for $54 million last evening